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by Sam Seidel
Author of Hip Hop Genius: Remixing High School Education

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Topic tags: equity, authenticity


December 9, 2014
Authenticity to Self: Engaging Students’ Identities in Project Based Learning

by Sam Seidel
Author of Hip Hop Genius: Remixing High School Education

While most schooling forces students to conform to social norms, Project Based Learning can provide opportunities for students to build from their own lived experiences and cultural vantage points.

When I stepped onstage at the first PBL World conference in 2012, I was nervous. Not normal speaking-in-front-of-a-crowd nervous—nervous because I was about to (playfully) criticize the organization that had invited me to give a keynote.  I spent my 45 minutes arguing that the Buck Institute for Education (BIE) should alter their core belief system: their eight Essential Elements (the commandments!) of Project Based Learning. What was the change I was proposing? Adding a ninth Element: Keep It Real.

Central to this notion was the idea that the best projects are "authentic." This was not an idea that was unfamiliar to BIE. In fact, about two weeks before I spoke at the first PBL World, in an article for Edutopia, BIE's John Larmer defined four ways in which a project can be authentic:

  1. Meets a real world need
  2. Focuses on an issue or problem relevant to students' lives
  3. Sets up a scenario that may not be real, but is realistic
  4. Uses the real tools and processes employed by adults in corresponding career fields

I agree with John on almost all of these fronts and when I returned to speak at PBL World 2014, I described three of them: "real world, real issues, and real work." I steer away from the idea of realistic scenarios (#3 above), because while I have seen some cool projects that are essentially simulations, I believe that there are always ways to leverage and link to real scenarios that are more engaging, more ripe with learning opportunities, and more powerful in having an actual impact on the world.

But, as much as I enjoy quibbling about these details with John, the more important change I have been advocating through my notion of "keeping it real" is an additional form of authenticity: projects that are authentic to students' identities and cultures. This type of authenticity is especially important for students whose cultures, communities, and realities are not reflected or respected in dominant social paradigms.

The term "keeping it real" comes from hip-hop culture. Hip-hop was created and has been innovated over the years predominantly by young Black and Latino people -- some of the populations our school systems are most drastically failing to engage and prepare. I argue that one of the reasons schools are so unsuccessful with students of color is that the work students are given rarely reflects or honors their identities and cultures (whether they have any connection to hip-hop or not), and what they know to be true.

Here’s an example of a project from the High School for Recording Arts (the school I focus on in my book) that demonstrates strong examples of what both John and I are talking about when we trumpet the value of authenticity...

This project addresses an important issue—the impacts of stress on children’s brain development. Working on the project allowed students to learn audio and video production, and engineering skills. They used the software and equipment that professionals use. They interacted with a real world client—the United Way—and posted the video online for the world to see (it has been viewed over 1,000+ times). 

But I would argue that the most important measure of this project's authenticity are the tears rolling down Isaiah’s cheek in the video. The project speaks to his identity and culture in at least two crucial ways: it creates space for his lived experiences growing up in stressful situations and it empowers him to express his learning through rap—a form of creative expression that has deep personal and cultural significance to him. In allowing Isaiah's culture and experiences to play a central role in the project, he is able to appear--in a world that too often denies students of color such opportunities. Once this happens, once a student sees their self in their work, all sorts of learning and development can occur that would have been virtually impossible otherwise.

If you’re a teacher, every time you initiate a project, ask yourself:

  1. How can I provide opportunities for my students to create projects that incorporate their identity and culture?
  2. How can I encourage and support students in addressing real world issues in their projects?
  3. How can I make sure students are getting exposed to the actual tools and techniques of professionals in fields related to their studies?

No matter how authentic a project is, there is always room to ask these questions and find new ways of pushing the project's parameters.

From my own experiences as a teacher and from extensive observations of other classrooms, I have found that projects that fire on all of the cylinders described above are successful by all measures that matter: Students are engaged and work hard; teachers feel fulfilled; families understand and feel connected to the work; final products are high quality and have immediate impact in the world; and the skills and information students learn, and relationships they build, prepare them for future successes.


  • This is an amazing example of a PBL scenerio.  I appreciate the addition of authenticity to self and culture into the structure of what defines a great project for learning.  I also see that this example seemed to have access to the resources needed to conduct this project.  I am from Hawaii, where my students would love the opportunity to do something like this, but the resources just don’t exist.  I am new to BIE and I will be looking for more information on ways to do PBL like this with the resources within poor, title 1 school settings.  Thanks so much for posting this!

    stephany on December 25, 2014 
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  • Hey Sam, I’m Johanna Logan currently a student majoring in Education at the University of South Alabama. I just wanted to take a momnet to say that I thouroughly enjoyed reading your blog. As a Education student I am learning more and more about PBL and the more I learn the more I’ve come to believe in it. I love the authenticity your Keep It Real additonbrings to PBL. Seeing the tears in Isaiah’s face let me know how real this experienc was for him.
    I also enjoyed the three questions you left for teacher to ask their selves when incorporating PBL.
    Thank you for sharing! I lokk forward to reading more.
    Here is a link to my blog if you are ever intrested in a good read.

    hannajo7 on February 1, 2015 
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